All Maltese students who choose to pursue post-secondary and tertiary education are well aware of the financial perks that such a choice brings – namely the monthly stipend and the student SmartCard.
The University of Malta [UoM] website defines the Smartcard as funds ‘intended to partly cover expenses related to educational material and equipment.’ It also states that Smart Cards are to be given to those students who are eligible to receive the stipend (post-secondary students and undergraduates) and that the amount of grant to which the students are entitled depends on the course being undertaken.
While the main intentions of this initiative launched in 2001 were undoubtedly positive, the whole funding scheme has often been questioned throughout the years. Although easily perceived as ideal financial support to students at first glance, an in-depth study of the programme would certainly draw attention to a number of shortcomings and deficiencies.
Despite this, these flaws have not gone unnoticed, especially by students who are currently benefitting, or have benefitted, from Smart Card funds. The most concerning issue seems to be the division of funds between students following courses at a tertiary level. A number of courses that can be followed at the University of Malta, namely; PGCE (sciences), B.EDUC (sciences), B.ENG, B.SC Business and Computing, B.SC ICT, B.SC Mental Health, B.SC Nursing and some other B.SC courses (but not all), are listed as ‘prescribed’ courses. Both the University of Malta and the Students’ Maintenance Grants Board [SMGB] website fail to properly specify what is meant by a prescribed course, and the closest definition on one of the informative PDFs released online by the University Stipend Office is that these courses are ‘predominantly but not exclusively science based.’ In other words, this means that these courses are considered to be a priority for the development of the country by the government of Malta.
This is where the fault seems to lie. Funds are not evenly distributed between the courses that seem to have the most expenses (books, equipment and other materials related to the course), but instead are given to students following prescribed courses to make them more likely to choose one of these courses, and less likely for them to drop out half way through. Indeed, reference is being made to courses such as Medicine and Architecture. Where do we really stand when it comes to such courses? Is it fair to only give additional financial aid to courses considered a priority for Malta?
A closer look at actual statistics and statements by students themselves may prove otherwise. A case in point is the Architecture course which has a large amount of expenses. Several statements by both current and ex-students show the financial problems confronted by them every year. Materials for models, boards used for presentations and laptops that can handle software used by architects do not come cheap. The amount of printing involved each week is also high and each student is obliged to pay large amounts of money in order to be able continue the course. So how are students expected to get through the year if both Smartcard and the stipend do not even last for just one semester? Similar statements were made by other students following different courses who also faced problems when having to buy equipment required for their studies. Strangely enough, when questioned, other students admitted using their Smart Card for non-educational items, but then also showed concern towards other courses that require expensive equipment but receive fewer funds.
In 2011, the Smart Card issue was brought up in local media when doubts were raised on reports produced by inspectors who were in charge of monitoring Smart Card purchases. The 2010 Annual Audit Report on Public Accounts stated that it considered ‘the administration and monitoring of the Scheme rather ineffective’ and that ‘the costs in administering the Scheme could be outweighing the benefits derived.’ It also added that the reason for this is ‘particularly due to the fact that purchases made by students using the SMG Smart Cards [were] not itemized. Therefore, there is no sufficient proof that funds are being used on educational material and equipment, as specified in the pertinent legislation.’
The report goes on to say that it is unclear whether shops in the scheme even stock educational items and questions how such shops were eligible to participate in the first place. It also raised doubts on the selling of sportswear using the Smart Card. It also concluded that the monitoring carried out was inadequate and unsatisfactory due to a number of reasons mainly the lack of fiscal receipts and transaction evidence, the choice of shops and poorly submitted reports. Although such statements by the Annual Audit Report questions the proficiency of the SMGB itself, the outcome of the report still shows that a number of outlets still allow students to purchases non-educational items using their Smart Card. In April 2011, inspectors purchased 15 items using a Smart Card including a number of mobile top-up cards, fitness equipment, music compact discs, an entertainment magazine and a toy. When compared to April of the previous year, non-educational purchases were considered on the rise, since in 2010 only six items not falling within the scheme were purchased by inspectors.
While some students find it hard to keep up with course expenses, others have been recklessly spending it on unrelated items. This begs the question: is it really that smart to give financial priority to prescribed courses rather than to courses with the most expenditure?
This article was first published in the February edition of The Insiter. Grab your copy from the designated pick up points.